Shanghai Bus Stories: Communist Money & Kooky Old Women

A Shanghai bus on Huai Hai Road.

Every week, after a long day of hard work plotting or tip-tapping away at my keyboard interacting with the lot of you on this angle or that, I take the elevator downstairs and jump onto a bus to go pick up my girlfriend from work to have dinner together.

Before I moved back to the Puxi side of Shanghai, I used to live right next to a metro station and the subway was the chariot of choice for getting anywhere beyond walking distance. Since then, having moved to a place where the nearest station is a good 15-20 minute walk away, I’ve become far more reliant on Shanghai’s public bus system. The metro is fairly easy to figure out and navigate but buses are decidedly less so, what with all the routes, lines, and numbers that criss-cross and zig-zag every which way throughout the city.

There are tools, especially online, to help navigate it all so you can always find a bus or a series of buses to get exactly where you need to go. Nonetheless, it is still daunting to think you have to figure out which bus will take you from here to there, where you need to get off or maybe transfer, and then what if you need to go from where to where that isn’t here to there? It can be a bit overwhelming at first, even if you end up being perfectly familiar with the few routes you regularly take. Every bus line I’m forced to figure out is one more fallacy or cognitive bias pushed out of my limited 20 MB hard drive of a brain.

Despite not being next to a major subway stop, where I currently live quickly turned out to be an exceptionally convenient place not only for what shopping was nearby but also for the number of bus lines that either start or run by the handful of stops just outside the door. I even have a dedicated bus line to the Shanghai World Expo. I’m seemingly always one bus ride away from any major district in Puxi, never requiring a transfer, and the buses all come within minutes of each other so I rarely have to wait long. Going to Huai Hai Road near XinTianDi to pick up my wench is a cinch.

Buses, like any public transportation in a densely populated metropolis is a great place to observe a part of the daily life of the city’s denizens. You certainly meet all sorts of people, and interesting things occasionally happen if you keep your eyes and ears open. They don’t have to be big things, momentous things, news-worthy things that change the balance of international relations. They can be seemingly banal things that just might give you a new wrinkle of appreciation for the shimmering prism that is the living world.

I want to share two of those seemingly banal things today.

A Shanghai bus, passengers in the background, a transportation reader in the foreground.

The Communist Party’s Money

Crap. Opening my wallet, I realized I didn’t have my transportation card, that nifty little device that would let me simply swipe it to pay my bus fare without having to lug around 2 kuai to deposit each time. My girlfriend had stolen it when she ran out of money on her’s and I forgot. Reaching into my pocket, I didn’t happen to have exact change either and I couldn’t run to a convenience store to buy something to get change. The bus was stopped, this being a terminal station where it departs at regular intervals, but it was about to leave soon and I didn’t have time to make a detour to suss out some coins without being late.

I got on the bus, with the driver outside finishing up his break getting ready to jump on, fire up the engines and go. I looked to the handful of passengers already on board and waiting, smiled my toothy “heh heh, I need some help” grin and sheepishly inquired as to whether anyone had any change for the 10 kuai bill I had. Despite a few wary glances toward my direction and some brief head shaking, the only response I got was a little schoolboy loudly commentating to another schoolgirl classmate that I needed change, and giggling. Hm.

Frak. Now what?

The driver and the security escort1 boarded, ready to take the bus on its route. I sheepishly stuck out my grubby fist with the 10 kuai bill and asked the driver if they had any change apologetically explaining how my girlfriend had taken my card and I didn’t have exact fare. The driver, without looking at me, directed me to just take a seat. The security escort asked me to take a seat and not move around, cautioning me that it’ll be unlikely that I can get change from the passengers who would board at later stops since most people these days all just swipe their transportation cards.

As the bus pulled out onto the street, with me sitting as close to the bus’s front entrance right behind the security escort, a bit embarrassed but thankful of still being allowed on board to get where I needed to go, the driver loudly commented.

“Don’t be embarrassed, it’s only the Communist Party’s money.”

And then he chuckled.

Several Chinese men asleep on a public bus.

Unreasonable Old Shanghainese Women

It was another day and another time, and here I was riding the same bus line after having dinner with my lady but only in the opposite direction towards home. Quite coincidentally, the driver was the same bespectacled, slightly more fashionably dressed (than the average bus-driver) driver who had let me ultimately get a free ride the previous time2. I pointed that out to my girl as if he was a rock star.

The buses on this route are a mix of the normal diesel engines and the electric motor types that rely on being tethered to electrical wires that are suspended above some of the streets in Shanghai. This time, I was on one of the electric buses. Some of them are quite nice being that they operate fairly quietly, especially when stopped at a light, but others are notorious for being a cacophony or switches and clicks. Turning off of Nanjing West Road and pulling on down the side street, the bus suddenly jolted, lost power, and came to a stop. An alarm beeped loudly as the driver calmly walked off the bus toward the back and the riders looked around in confusion.

As we largely guessed, the electric tether, lasso, or whatever-it’s-called had gotten disconnected from the suspended electrical cables above the street, thus rendering the bus without its main source of power and thus propulsion. This happens every so often and usually the driver just needs to hook the tether back on for the bus to get back on its merry way. With all of us still in the bus, the driver got back on and lugged the bus on its reserve batteries to the side of the road, opened the doors, and then went back outside.

Unsure what was happening, since he didn’t say anything, but sensing that this was a cue for us to disembark, we slowly got off. I walked towards the back and saw that one of the two “heads” had fallen off of the tether, thereby making it impossible to close the circuit, which probably meant we were dead in the water. I asked the driver what happens now and he indicated that we’d have to wait for the next bus to come and pick us up. Sounds about right.

Except it wasn’t for two older women who proceeded to loudly complain at the driver in Shanghainese. I didn’t understand what they were complaining about but it was amusing watching the driver’s reaction. He largely ignored them, remaining pretty calm and cool, but of the two responses and retorts he had indulged them with, there was this hilarious “what-the-fuck-are-you-going-on-about” look in his “oh-my-god-are-you-serious” eyes.

The next bus came, we all climbed on, and went on our way. What was the old lady griping about?

She was complaining that the driver should’ve let everyone off at the previous bus stop if this was going to happen.

Yeah, your guess is as good as mine. Some people, right?

As our new bus ferried us away passing by our original busted bus hazard-blinking alone on the side of the road with its driver, waiting for repairs or a tow, we noticed a poor soul who had fallen asleep and was still slumbering away inside. Well, that person’s not going to get home anytime soon.

Everyday is an adventure. Surprises at every corner. Keep your eyes and ears open. Enjoy the ever-colorful and ever-eventful world for what it is.

This post was reprinted and republished
in MOZIMOGO #3 July 2010.

  1. Recently, perhaps for the Expo, buses have been getting an extra person ostensibly to help maintain order or something. []
  2. I had later deposited extra fare. I’m honest like that. []


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  1. krdr

    I love bus stories. I lived in outskirts of Belgrade. Almost half of youth my generation spent in bus. Well knowing lines was essential for getting on time or even getting there. Line from my house to downtown was long enough to do homework, prepare exams, fall in love or make parties. Younger kids loved to make round tours, as it was like they went to downtown without leaving neighborhood :). Old folks would stack themselves in front of bus during winter as there was warmest place in bus. Warmer than in their flats. It was win-win situation for them. Driving in the bus was social event and they avoided to warm up their heathers and spare some money.

    Thank you for this well written post that brought some nice memories.

  2. those old ladies remind me f democrats and whiny bitches who complain but have no balls in deciding things previously, but somehow they are psychic to what will happen in the future

  3. AndyR

    Great post Kai! Love it when you take a break from fighting the media to write neat anecdotes about daily life in China…more please!

  4. Mr. Wok

    “Don’t be embar­rassed, it’s only the Com­mu­nist Party’s money.”

    Funny, i bet the driver would have never said that to a local person. He’s right too. What do the people get? Poor driver.

    So it sounds like he gave u a free ride eh?

  5. lolz

    Oh I remember the days when I lived near the Bund and had to take the bus to go the company which I interned for whenever it rained because getting taxi during rain in Shanghai can be extremely difficult if you are not in front of a large department store; Typically the nice department stores have taxi stands which force people to form a line. Near the bus stops and on the road, most of the time random people just walk in front of you and grab the cab that was meant for you.

    I also will not forget the day that my parent’s friends visiting from the US (yes they were white) insisted on taking the bus to get a better feel of “Chinese culture” and promptly got their digital camera stolen from their bag. When you are squeezed in from all sides you become an easy target for thieves, especially when you are white and have an unlocked backpack.

    Yet compared to majority of the cities which I have been to in the US, the public transportation system in Shanghai is fantastic. The transportation cards which can be used on buses, subways, and cabs is a great idea and nicely implemented in Shanghai. It does make you wonder just why can’t all major cities around the world use a similar system.

  6. zball

    I love reading story with rich flavour of life. Although I realize the major purpose of this forum , sometimes those political or social topics are just too heavy to read through. It is my hope that this kind of story will pop up from time to time in the future.

  7. Zuo Ai

    As a person who relies on public transportation no matter which country I happen to be in, I enjoyed this. A rarity for sure

  8. F

    Yeah buses can be great; except when people offer you their seat thinking that you’re pregnant when you’re not ;( I just have a belly OK.

    Most interesting thing that I experienced on a bus in China was when there was a sudden commotion at the back. A guy was getting up to get off when his arms were twisted behind him and he was pushed back onto his seat – by plain clothes police! They then produced the stuff he stole, and the guy he stole from was sitting there all bewildered and amazed, like he’d just been part of a magic trick “I had no idea he slashed my pockets and took my wallet! Wow!”, showing everyone his jacket pocket. Everyone burst into applause and looked mighty happy to see justice served!

    • Whoa, giving how pervasive pickpocketing and petty theft is still, I wish that kind of awesomeness would happen more often. Good job on the cops for that one and thanks for sharing your story, belly or not! ;)

  9. Hi Kai,

    I like your posts light like this. You should do this more often.

    lolz is right, that KFC post started it. :-)


  10. bai ren

    kai im one of those guys who loves it heavy.
    But this here is a great story of the everyday life that the heavy stuff affects.

    to throw my 2 cents in. In Harbin there are 1rmb and 2 rmb busses, the 2 rmb ones have ac, more seating and are decidedly less full.
    Also you know how you can get squished in the sardine can and moved a jostled around? well its a hell of a lot more fun during the morning rush hour in the dead of winter in Harbin. The windows are coated in ice on both sides and when I was leaning against the window my coast became frozen to it. Crazy times

    • Hah, there were still AC and non-AC buses in Shanghai a few years ago but have since seemingly been phased out (unless anyone else can testify where some still run). I haven’t been to Harbin yet, but I believe that’s where Custer was most of the time.

  11. GFZ

    Nice stories Kai, I like last one. Old Chinese women who complain a lot are always amusing to read about or watch. Reminds me of the “no more shark fin soup situation”. =D